I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was during the time when video stores were slowly making room for DVDs instead of tapes, and many of these ex-rentals ended up in the hands of traveling salesmen in Sweden who rented cheap spaces to sell them inexpensively. That’s how I first encountered Ironmaster on the old VTC tape. Of course, my interest was piqued by the name of the director, Umberto Lenzi. My old roommate Leo and I watched it and found ourselves both amazed and entertained. We expected something like Conan, but instead we found a classic caveman story with a lot of cheesy wigs, some minor gore, and the strange, stiff, and oddly effective Sam Pasco in the lead as Ela, the hero opposite the evil and greedy Vood (the always fantastic Luigi Montefiori, under the name George Eastman). What struck me about Sam Pasco was his almost complete lack of charisma, but still, with an ability to move in front of the camera and perform action scenes quite well. His muscular body made him almost look like a big baby, running over the fields trying to avoid the buffalos. But who was Sam Pasco? I turned to Umberto Lenzi, the director of Ironmaster, but he couldn’t give me any answer except that Mr. Pasco was dead. So I asked Sergio Martino, brother of producer Luciano Martino, but he had heard the same thing: Mr. Pasco is dead. He recommended that I try contacting him with the help of a medium, something I might very well do one day.
I couldn’t let this stop me, I had to find answers, no matter if he was dead or alive. I sat down and began an extensive amount of research that led me to finding a man with a life more interesting, and a career much wider than I ever could have imagined.
Let me introduce you to Big Max.
Colt Studio Group (“If the look is masculine, the name is COLT!”) started in San Francisco in 1967, founded by famous erotic photographer Jim French. They produced glossy magazines, movie loops, and various erotica featuring well-endowed muscular men. Sam Pasco, working under the name Big Max, was one of them in his early movie career. As a gay man and a bodybuilder, it seemed to be the perfect place to earn some money and fame. Sam also appeared on covers for Colt Men, Mandate, Honcho, and bodybuilding magazines like The Physical Man.
At some point, Pasco lived on Bank Street in the Village and seemed to be a familiar face in the neighborhood. Pete, a local resident at the time, remembers Pasco: “I was obsessed with Sam Pasco back in 1975 (thereabouts) when he’d walk through the Village in a white sailor’s outfit. I told my therapy group that this was my ‘ideal man’ — he still is. We met one night at the MineShaft, and we had sex at my place, but I was pretty poor and couldn’t afford it on a continuing basis.” Another Bank Street resident, Danny, also remembers him: “He was a really big guy seen a lot on Christopher St way back when it was the center of the gay universe. He never smiled much, and I think it was because he had had a facelift and did not want to stretch his face. It was sort of like a flat affect. Anyway, he hustled but sometimes he just slept with someone for free. I was one of those guys. He worked out at Mid-city gym in Manhattan and hung out at The Saint disco. Of course, AIDS ended all that… In bed, he was such a Big Monster, and it was intimidating. I will always remember him.”
But where did Pasco come from? According to some sources, he was from Tallahassee, Florida but ended up somewhere else. His friend John gave me a clue about the early ’70s: “In the early 1970s, Sam Pasco was studying English literature at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. He was going with a fellow student named Fred, I do believe. Sam got involved with one of his students who was a hunk on the wrestling team. He invited the wrestler to his place and gave him a ‘couple of blowjobs,’ according to the wrestler. Sam was a graduate teaching assistant at the time, and a senior professor got wind of what Sam did and made things very difficult for Sam. I don’t think that Sam ever finished his degree at Auburn as a result of that. Jim French photographed Sam and said he was ‘intelligent but lazy.’ Sam and Fred would usually come into Pasquali’s, a pizza place in Auburn, around 8:00 or 9:00 for coffee with a group of us. Sam rarely said much; he was very quiet.”
In 1983, the same year that Ironmaster was released in Italy and other parts of the world, he was back in his old trade, and you could find an amazing little ad in the pink pages under “models.” The ad offered his “services” with the promise of a “movie star,” I guess both from the Colt movies (as mentioned in the ad) and maybe even Ironmaster. The same year, he came in fourth place in the AAU Mr. America (Amateur Athletic Union), and the year after, he finished in ninth place, both times in the heavyweight class. According to his friend Thomas, “his stature was so large that when he first went into bodybuilding, the judges had a hard time, as few contestants then were as tall as he was and so well-proportioned.”
Pasco continued to make his living through photo shoots and adult video productions, such as “Grease Monkey,” “Cli-Max,” “Jogging with Big Max and Bruno,” “Bullet Pack,” and “Dunes,” often using the name “Big Max” and sometimes “Mike Spanner” — an alias he used in “Dunes.” Pasco probably appeared in many more adult movies than just these titles, but considering the massive number of productions produced, it is hard to trace the titles and aliases he used. Somehow, he finally landed the lead role in “Ironmaster.” How? Neither director Umberto Lenzi nor producer Luciano Martino can remember, but the best guess is that he auditioned like most actors and probably kept his adult movie career far away from his resume, only telling them about his bodybuilding. Part of “Ironmaster” was shot in the US, specifically South Dakota, so they likely held auditions in the US as well.
After his stint in the Italian sword and sandal genre, Pasco faded out from the entertainment business. But an avid fan recalls how he tried to contact his hero: “In the mid-1980s, I saw a few of his pics (had never seen or heard of him before) in a BB mag (Muscular Development, I think). He was manly, cut, and had a gorgeous face and deep blue eyes. In one pic, he was wearing a Mid City Gym t-shirt. I realized that he must be in NYC (where I was). So I looked in the phonebook and found a Sam Pasco living on Bank Street in the Village. I called the number, and a guy answered. When I asked for Sam, he said, ‘This is Sam.’ I didn’t know what to say next, so I just hung up (I was YOUNG!). I never forgot his cuts (or his eyes), and some years later I called Mid City Gym and asked to speak with Sam Pasco. The man who answered the phone told me (in the thickest NY accent ever) that ‘he doesn’t come around here no more.’ When I asked a few more questions, the guy told me he was dead.”
Yes, so it wasn’t just Lenzi and Martino who had heard that Pasco passed away not long after Ironmaster. But how did it happen and when? One thing is for sure, it was during the height of the AIDS epidemic, but according to Danny, his death was due to something different, “He died at the height of the AIDS epidemic, but I believe it was liver failure due to tons of steroids.” According to his friend Pete, he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1985, and another friend, Thomas adds, “I was told he died of a drug overdose caused by his steroid use and the fact that his large heart couldn’t take the stimulation. Great guy, a real shame he’s dead.” We will never know for sure, but years later Danny described an encounter with someone claiming to be Pasco’s brother: “I live on Bank St in the West Village, and a guy came to my apartment tonight to visit because he said his brother used to live there. His brother, he said, was Sam Pasco. He said his brother was a bodybuilder and gay. Unfortunately, the brother said Sam committed suicide in my apt in 1986.”
Thomas remembers his friend: “We stayed in touch for a few years, but near the end, he was not in the best of health because of liver complications. Though his acting was less than stellar, he was a very down-to-earth and sincere person at all times. I still remember and miss him.” Another friend, who remains anonymous, wrote to me: “I first met Sam back in the late ’70s. I was invited to a three-way, and Sam was a surprise for me. When he walked in, I was shocked and blown away. Here was this man I had only dreamed of, and here he was standing in front of me. Needless to say, it was a wonderful evening. Afterwards, we started to get to know each other, and that’s when I realized how incredibly intelligent he was; you didn’t expect him to be so smart. He turned out to be very sweet and, like I said, very intelligent. Later, when we would see each other on the street in the village, we would stop and chat. I played with him a few more times, and it was so cool knowing I was getting for free what most people paid big bucks for. Great guy, a real shame he’s dead.”
Sam Pasco might not be remembered for his acting skills, but in Ironmaster, he makes a perfect peace-loving protagonist as Ela opposite Luigi Montefiori’s super evil antagonist, Vood. The Italian sword-and-sandal genre seldom saw such well-defined muscles and stiff acting come together at the same time as in Ironmaster, but Sam Pasco clearly was a great guy and a huge lover of all that life can give. I guess you really can’t beat that.
Thanks to Danny, Thomas, John, Pete, Umberto Lenzi, Luciano Martino and the rest of Sam’s friends and colleagues who have participated with information for this biography. Also a big thanks and my love my friend and fellow geek Jason Meredith for helping me out with this text and for pushing me to actually finish it.
Fred Andersson is a Swedish story producer, occultist and writer with over twenty years of experience in commercial television and the author of three books. He lives in Märsta, outside Stockholm, with his photographer husband Grzegorz and two overly active cats. Join him on Twitter and Instagram. An earlier draft of this article was published in January 25th, 2011 on the blog Ninja Dixon and as a booklet together with 88 Films blu-ray release of Ironmaster in 2017.